4 April 2022

Stars aligned for First Nations composers on CSO Chamber Ensemble program

| Ian Bushnell
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Woman sitting in front of a piano

Composer Brenda Gifford draws on the inspiration of her country at Wreck Bay on the South Coast. Photo: Marissa McDowell.

Three First Nations composers will be featured in Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) Australian Series concert on 7 April, including a new CSO commission from Canberra’s Christopher Sainsbury.

The CSO Chamber Ensemble will perform six works in a concert entitled Stargazers at the National Museum of Australia Atrium at 6:30 pm.

Chief conductor and artistic director Jessica Cottis was to have held the baton but her arrival from Europe has been delayed and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s cybec assistant conductor fellow Carlo Antonioli will step up to make his CSO debut.

Sainsbury is a composer of Dharug descent who leads the Ngarra-Burria First Peoples Composers program at the ANU School of Music and his work is called In the Beginning, Fun.

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Also on the bill will be Yuin composer Brenda Gifford and Yuwaalaraay author/composer Nardi Simpson.

Gifford has a jazz background as a saxophone player but has turned her hand to composing in recent years, riding a wave of support for First Nations composers and performers that has thrust them into a space where they were previously rarely heard.

“Having those voices represented in the CSO program is really lovely,” she said.

The CSO’s Australian Series program is a part of its mission to provide a platform to the country’s own composers and performers.

Gifford said Australia had some amazing composers and it was vital that they were represented in all their diversity.

Man sitting on steps

Christopher Sainsbury leads the Ngarra-Burria First Peoples Composers program at the ANU School of Music. Photo: CSO.

Her composition, Mungala, or Clouds in the Dhurga language, is for flute and clapsticks and was first performed in 2019 in New York by flautist Claire Chase, who commissioned the work through the Composing Women program at Sydney University.

“It was an amazing experience to have somebody like Claire Chase perform it – she just took it to another place,” Gifford said.

It will be the first performance of Mungala at a CSO event and she is keen to see what they do with it.

“That’s the beauty of it; each player has their own interpretation,” Gifford said.

She is also thrilled to share the program with Sainsbury, who has been helping and supporting her with the whole idea of being a composer.

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Gifford draws on her own country at Wreck Bay on the NSW South Coast for inspiration, composing with piano and recording passages on her mobile phone, extracting the gems as she goes.

“Sometimes a baseline will come into my head at a bus stop and I’ll sing into my phone. I look like a weirdo but that’s cool,” she said.

Currently, she is working with National Folk Festival artistic director Katie Noonan and the Australian Vocal Ensemble on a work for four voices, Estuary, based on the Gwen Harwood poem.

Her move into what she calls the contemporary classical space has exposed her to new sounds and approaches, including the use of technology.

“Working with musicians who think outside the square has really opened my ear up,” Gifford said.

Carlo Antonioli is Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s cybec assistant conductor fellow. Photo: Laura Manariti

Other works on the program are another new commission To the Waters Above by Jakub Jankowski, Nardi Simpson’s Of Stars and Birds, Richard Meale’s Coruscations and Connor D’Netto’s String Quartet No. 2 in E minor.

Antonioli was the assistant conductor to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in 2018/19, and has also assisted Vladimir Ashkenazy and Simone Young at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Upcoming engagements in 2022 include Philip Glass’s Book of Longing with the Australian Contemporary Opera Company and a regional tour with the MSO.

A passionate advocate for education, he has worked with the Australian Youth Orchestra, Sydney Youth Orchestras and Kuringai Youth Orchestra. He has conducted the Australian Doctors Orchestra and has been a regular conductor with the Eastern Sydney Chamber Orchestra and Orange Symphony Orchestra, frequently returning to both since 2018.

He is also a composer and is a member of the Sydney-based Dreambox Collective.

To learn more visit the CSO website.

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